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When the Republicans in Springfield agreed in 1995 to hand over the reins of the city’s schools to Daley II, they figured they were setting him up to fail—bigtime. Instead, steady improvements to the school system have become a genuine achievement for this mayor. “Here is the major difference between the two Daleys,” says William Singer, who served as Daley II’s first school board vice president. “I always felt that Daley the First ignored the public schools. This one doesn’t.”
In the mid-1950s, the Chicago public schools were badly overcrowded. To accommodate the black families that had flooded into the city after World War II, Daley I and his school superintendent, Benjamin Willis, set up mobile classrooms in the schoolyards of black neighborhoods so African American students—some 25,000 new ones every year—wouldn’t transfer to white neighborhoods. Between 1953, when Willis was hired, and 1966, when he resigned, 625 so-called Willis Wagons were put in place. Even so, students attended school in shifts because of the lack of space.
When civil rights groups pressed Daley I and Willis to integrate Chicago’s schools, the mayor bristled and generally kept his distance from school affairs. “Richard J. did not get education,” says Simpson. “He thought that every kid ought to get an education, but he didn’t realize that the public schools really didn’t provide that the same way [they did when he was] growing up going to Catholic schools in Bridgeport.”
In 1965, the U.S. Office of Education announced that it was withholding $30 million of federal aid because the Chicago school board was still discriminating by race in the schools. Daley I used his clout in Washington to reverse the decision. In 1968, 85 percent of the city’s black youth attended schools that were 95 percent black, the Department of Health, Education and Welfare found at the time. (In 1977, after 12 years of negotiating, the federal government and the city agreed to a citywide desegregation plan.)
By the early 1970s, Chicago’s schools were in dire straits. More than 40 percent of students weren’t graduating from high school. The average eighth grader here was almost a year and a half behind the rest of the country in reading ability, and students in ghetto schools were more than two years behind. And 51 of the 57 public high schools in the city were below the national average in student achievement. “I said repeatedly, ‘We’re not perfect,’” Daley I told precinct workers in one of his election-eve rallies. “But I will put up against anyone the 27,000 teachers in Chicago—men and women—for their dedication, their devotion, and their interest in the children. And I will put up against any similar city . . . the 500,000 young boys and girls in these institutions. They’re just as good as anyone else.”
But they weren’t, and Daley I was plainly in denial. Says Mikva: “One of the problems the Old Man had was that he would frequently insist that there was no problem.”
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Shortly before Daley II became mayor, William Bennett, the U.S. education secretary, called Chicago’s public schools the “worst in the nation.” When Daley II took control of the schools 13 years ago—the first big-city mayor to do so—he promised things would change. He appointed a new school board and put his former budget director Paul Vallas in charge. Daley II’s administration fired 2,000 non-teaching employees, stripped power from the elected school board, ended social promotions, expanded summer school and afterschool programs, and raised taxes to pay for more than $4 billion in school construction and repair. “It was a politically courageous thing to do, because at the time he did it nobody thought there was any upside,” says alderman Ed Burke.
The general consensus is that Chicago’s schools—many of them, at least—have improved under Daley II. Writing scores are up. So are college enrollment rates for CPS graduates. Last year, nearly two-thirds of public school students met or exceeded standards on the state achievement test. On the ACT, students are making gains at a rate that doubles the rest of the state and triples the national rate. And as of this fall, CPS will have built 77 new schools under the mayor’s Renaissance 2010 initiative, which replaces underperforming schools with new ones, some of them privately run. All of this without any crippling teachers’ strikes. The last time teachers hit the picket lines was in 1987. Before that, there were nine strikes in 17 years.
The achievement gap is still a chasm for many. Fewer than half of CPS high-school students graduate, and dropout rates remain high. Except for a small but growing handful of high-performing schools, most CPS schools are still lagging behind their counterparts in the suburbs. School funding remains a big problem.
Even so, Daley II’s efforts on education have earned him grudging respect even from his detractors. “The schools are still a terrible problem—they still suffer from segregation,” says Leon Despres. “But this mayor has permitted—welcomed—experimentation, different kinds of schools, charter schools, special merit schools. The mayor deserves credit for that.”
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